(Photo by Matt Riley, UVa Athletics)
On April 16, 2018, Tina Thompson was announced as the fifth head coach for the University of Virginia. Just like with his homerun hire with Tony Bennett over a decade ago, Athletic Director Jeff White thought out of the box in bringing some youthful, high-intensity energy to the women’s program trending upwards despite the sudden departure of previous coach Joanne Boyle. To the casual basketball fan, Thompson’s hire may not seem like a big deal, but it is actually a much bigger deal for not just the campus, but the ACC (and all of women’s basketball for that matter). Here are 3 reasons why:
First, Thompson has been a winner and success everywhere she’s been. From her time as a prep standout at LA-area Morningside high school all the way to winning 4 straight WNBA championships with the Houston Comets, Thompson has been surrounded by winners and understands better than anyone the feeling of winning championships. Oh and don’t forget she also touts Olympic experience and even has two gold medals. In transitioning to the next chapter of her life– now as a coach, Karen Aston of the University of Texas took a chance and brought Thompson on as an assistant and within 3 years promoted her to associate head coach. By no coincience, the Longhorns won exactly 80% of their games (84-21 in 3 years)– ending no worse than a Sweet 16 finish every year during that time. Considering Thompson has far from a bare cupboard to work with in taking over a team that just reached the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament this past season, you can expect that she’s going to win immediately (barring injury of course). Speaking of which…
Second, Thompson can not only bring talent, but she can develop and maximize the talent. Thompson’s impact in Austin included many of the recruiting duties (Texas brought in the #2 recruiting class for 2018 and #3 recruiting class for 2017), as well as the post development of star players such as Imani Boyette (now playing professionally) and Kelsey Lang. Thompson may not have the high-profile roster with her new team as she was used to in Austin, it doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare. The Wahoos bring back the underrated point guard Dominque Toussaint (11.4 ppg, 3.7 apg), 6-0 guard Jocelyn Willoughby (who can potentially be a Victoria Vivians-type matchup problem) and Felicia Aiyeotan who at 6’9, gives Thompson an X-factor and fun project with continued development. In short– she has the pieces that won’t back down from anyone in the ACC.
And finally, the ACC is a quality, but top-heavy conference, which bodes well for easing Thompson into one of the most challenging leagues around. Among the major challengers this upcoming season are Miami, Florida State, Tobacco Road siblings Duke & NC State– each coming off Sweet 16 berths, as well as Final Four participants Louisville and of course, Notre Dame which finished the season on top. Of those teams, Florida State, Duke & NC State dealt with major graduation losses and will be in a period of transition at least early on (though each bring back solid talent). That leaves Miami (which is a major sleeper with a wealth of talent coming back), Louisville that only loses one (albeit major) starter– but brings back the ACC Player of the year in Asia Durr and Notre Dame, which not only brings back 4 of its 5 starters from its National Championship team, but also brings back no less than 3 key players from ACL tears as well as a top-8 recruiting class– so the Wahoos will have its work cut out in dealing with the top teams in the league. The good thing is that as mentioned previously, the Wahoos bring back talent of its own and will likely vie for a top-5 (if not top -4) finish in the conference, which could potentially see Virginia as a NCAA top-16 seed, just like NC State saw this year with its top-4 ACC finish this year. Thompson doesn’t lose often, so expect to see the winning culture flourish with her new team.
For Virginia fans, relish this moment– Virginia basketball is back and here to stay.